Carl, World’s Best Manager

What does it mean to be a manager? When you think of your direct superior at work, how do you see her/him? Do they smile often? Give you family time off from work? Is your manager cool because she gifted everyone on the team with brand new Apple wireless keyboard and mouse combos? What does it really mean to have a cool manager? What does it mean to be that cool manager? Hi, I’m Cliff. You’re here because you either hate or love your manager and you wanna find out how to be or acquire a cool manager. I’m sorta here because… I dunno… I think I’m being called to write about this guy I worked under.

I don’t know why I’ve been thinking more and more about one particular manager I worked under. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with a bunch of super-hero supervisors even and especially in my recent years! There are a few folks I would give my life for… I’m talking about the last couple of guys I worked under. But let’s not play favorites. For all the awesome managers and supervisors I worked with I’ve also had may fair share of tyrants. Today’s topic is not to compare apples but to highlight one particular individual who guided me through one of the biggest accomplishments in my professional career. I’ll try not to be be specific, but this guy knows who he is, what he did, and the accomplishments I’m referring to.

Over the years, I’ve worked on a ton of high profile apps and teams at the world’s top tech companies, but there was one project very early in my tech career where I had the rare opportunity to be the lead engineer. It was a first for me and of course it went to my head. That’s where Carl comes in. He was my tech manager during this time in this is also what makes Carl so special.

Before I get to the details, let me explain a bit about Carl. He was a younger guy but extremely chill. The kind that jokes during meetings but has a really laid back demeanor where it never seems like anything bothers him. My first encounter with him as my manager was during a remote call between offices. My office was in PA and he was working out of Denver, Colorado. We had these huge Polygon video conference setups in the conference rooms with automated cameras that would rotate towards you when powered up. Each room had a remote that could control both the local camera and the camera in the office you dialed into. I believe these were HD display as well at a time where HD was extremely rare.) I was commissioned to lead this major new product which was going to be a first on the world’s biggest tech platform.

I dialed into the Colorado office to speak with my new tech manager about it. The camera in Denver spins around and I see two feet… prominently displayed… from a chair… around about where a person’s head would normally extend! It was a nicely clad pair of feet decorated with some fly sneakers, but it was still feet… where a head was expected. This was Carl. Carl’s body was attached to the feet. Somewhere towards the bottom of the room where I was able to remotely point the camera was his smiling face, attached to the body that was screwed into the feet initially displayed. (He was lying on the ground with his feet perched in the chair all chill like.) Now most people know how big a clown I am but when I saw this I was like, “This dude here is made out of my kind of material!”

We spoke about the project and Carl reminded me that I was running point. He told me he would be participating as a developer and, in fact, working under me as a team member. It was brand new sexy technology and Carl was also an awesome developer. This was around the year 2008 and it was a big deal. Everybody and they momma wanted to touch this brand new upcoming tech. Now as awesome as it was to see those fly sneakers when I initially dialed Denver I was twice as blown away when my new manager (I had just been assigned to Carl’s team after a re-org but before starting the project) told me he was excited to take direction from me.

Now here’s a few points of observation I want to share about the moment.

  • First, the best way to hold a remote video meeting with your subordinates is through your sneakers.
  • Never let ’em see you smile… at least until you let ’em see your Nikes. (Or were they Adidas?)
  • Great leaders humble themselves and empower their team members.

That one conference call is forever burned into my mind! We could end the story right there as this is powerful enough on its own but there’s more. You see, the tech I was working with was unfamiliar. It used a programming language I’d never even heard of before and required specialized equipment I had just recently received. I was a very capable programmer but I was out of my element. Also, I had recently become obsessed with this new development methodology called Test Driven Design, and the majority of people I worked with had not been bitten the same way. On paper, and in my mind, this would have been a storybook example of one man leads a team to a successful product launch using an industry leading approach and they all lived technically superior ever-after! However, reality was drastically different.

I had an ego problem at the time. There was very little you could tell me about programming that I didn’t think I already knew. I had a task and had learned an approach that would guarantee success. The worse thing you could do to a person like that would be to put them in a position of leadership. Carl was completely opposite. He was open to new ideas and approaches that were different than his own. He didn’t know where I was going with our new team but he was like, “I’m with it! Let’s do this!”

About a month into the project and I was in trouble. We were having weekly, probably daily meetings on how to do TDD and I was giving tasks for people to work on. Hardly any source code had been developed for the project. My ego was too big to acknowledge any trouble and when asked about progress I would always respond with, “we’re on track!” Carl, a heavily experienced developer and manager knew better and tried to guide me from behind, where my ego wouldn’t get bruised. He always spoke to me in private and never chastised me. Looking back, I deserved so much worse than chastisement! I was making so many mistakes, not so much with my design approach but with the practicality of everything. Add to that how I really didn’t understand the tools or the platform. Most of what I was trying to do was technically not possible but my ego convinced me otherwise.

Eventually another tech director was brought on the team, along with some folks who had actually developed with the technology for the platform. I was still officially considered the lead but mostly took a back seat to these more experienced folks. Carl was in my corner the entire time encouraging me as the project began to become real. We had an initial and successful launch and the entire team got their deserved credit.

At this point my confidence was bruised because my initial code and approach was tossed in order to have a successful launch. Deep inside, I realized the insanity of what I tried to do and I was in failure mode. A few months later we began phase 2 of the project which was 3 times as significant. It required twice the staff and a level of leadership/expertise of presidential magnitude. I had been reassigned from the project after another re-org, but then something strange happened only days after my being reassigned. I had a little technical breakthrough with some tech that no one else in the company had ever touched before. I was immediately reassigned back to the project and Carl was still taking lead from me!

During this next phase I was in a lead position but actually being lead by Carl. He was experienced in managing big projects and I was experienced in making big messes. By this time, my ego was bruised enough where I was actively listening to him rather than barking toward him, although I wouldn’t admit it. You see, he had this way of reminding me to do things I’d forgotten that I didn’t know anything about. It would go something like this:

Him: “Remember we have to order servers.”
Me: “Of course! I’m already on it! Wait… how do I do that?”
Him: “Remember, you have to put in an ops ticket, tell them how many, what software needs to be on them, the business need, etc.?”
Me: “Oh yeah! Right, I was just about to do that! Wait how many should we purchase?”
Him: “You have to research how many requests/sec each server can support on average and forecast how many requests/sec we should expect… etc.”
Me: “Why do I gotta do that again?”
Him: “So you can predict how many we need to support a load! You are going to load test, right?”
Me: “Yeah, yeah… I was just starting that…”

The whole time this guy was extremely humble and supporting me the whole way even as I was clearly taking all the credit and acting like the man. To be fair, I was doing some major coding on the project. I was doing everything from client side media decompression and session management, network programming, to server side media compression, Java, C/C++, JNI, callbacks, timing, build systems, deployment, provisioning servers, and washing laundry. I was in my happy place, doing what I loved to do on a truly greenfield project. Still the majority of the credit, leadership, management, and straight up awesomeness goes to a certain individual.

I’ve told this story several times to many different people but I never really identified Carl as the man behind the miracle. I never focused on his role as tech manager, leader, role model, etc. Over the years I’ve taken his example and tried to be a role model for people I work with whenever I am placed in a leadership role. I always make a point to give my coworkers all the credit regardless of how much code I contribute and irrespective of what role I play. I always highlight the contributions of others above my own. Ultimately I’ve learned leadership through serving those I lead or mentor. Shout out to Carl for teaching me this very valuable lesson and for being the first experience I’ve ever had with a manager who leads from behind.